By: Angela Hanson | June 21, 2024

Ingredients of the “secret sauce” include quality differentiation and having a tight focus.

TAMPA, Fla. — What does it take to outperform foodservice competitors? Is it the menu, the marketing or one signature item?

There is no single, easy answer, according to participants in the discussion panel “Finding Your Secret Sauce: Harnessing innovation and future forward strategies to create a competitive advantage,” held at the Convenience Store News 2024 Convenience Foodservice Exchange. However, certain key themes serve as strong guidelines that help operators cook up the best possible version of their foodservice program.

[Read more: What Does It Take to Craft the Secret Sauce?]

Investing in differentiating quality and openly communicating that difference is vital, according to panel moderator Liza Salaria, practice lead — category management and foodservice at Impact21. “It’s not just the quality of the food, but there’s some fun ideas around how you communicate it uniquely,” she said.

Having a tighter focus is also valuable, as implementing a differentiating quality can’t be done “absolutely everywhere,” Salaria added. “And when you have tighter focus, it really enables your operations team to operate at a higher level.”

Additional key themes include:

  • Supply chain and production planning are foundational.
  • People make the difference.
  • No one is looking for “more mediocrity.”

In the last few years, Temple, Texas-based CEFCO Convenience Stores determined that the need for consistency was part of its secret sauce. To achieve a consistent food experience while creating fun, craveable food, the retailer embarked on a menu optimization process.

Part of that meant downsizing. The company launched a research and analysis project to understand what CEFCO customers wanted and how they prioritized their prepared food purchases, shared Rachel Puepke, vice president of marketing and merchandising.

“We did this research, basically streamlined our menu, simplified the operations. That was the goal,” Puepke said. “We took out 15 menu items, eliminated single-use ingredients and really simplified that menu to say, ‘what do we want to be known for?'”

The retailer also partnered with well-known brands such as Johnsonville and King’s Hawaiian to establish credibility in the foodservice sphere while upgrading its proteins to include high-quality chicken, steak, carnitas, bacon, brisket and burger.

“That’s where the marketing comes in,” Peupke said. “It’s really important for you to talk about where the food’s from and how you make it, especially if it’s made to order. If you don’t tell them that, they’re not going to know, and they’re going to have these preconceived notions of what c-store food is.”


David Karam, CEO of Sbarro, a global leader in the impulse pizza category that has significantly grown its presence in c-stores and other non-mall venues in recent years, highlighted the importance of leaning into the essence of a brand.

“The impulse pizza occasion is what it says. It’s an impulse,” he said. “We know that that’s our primary point of difference.”

Karam recommended that operators first decide on their basic brand position, because “you know where you want to go before you start packing.” Next, they should identify critical success factors in moving its business to where the company wanted to be.

The next step is developing key performance measures, because “if delivered product quality is critical, you better find a way to effectively measure it.” Finally, brands must drive heightened execution.

RaceTrac’s Bonnie Zaring, executive director of food, programs and offers at the Atlanta-based chain, emphasized the importance of cultivating partnerships, particularly when it comes to grab-and-go food programs that aspire to be truly frictionless.

“It’s important to us to try to get the most shelf life out of our items in stores,” she said. “So we really leverage this supply chain, leverage our distributors to be able to say ‘what are the right items that we need at the right time and how do we get them to the store in a way that helps our stores be successful and deliver on that quality?'”

Being able to maintain high standards of food quality also starts with manufacturer and supplier partners, Zaring continued.

“Over the years we’ve developed relationships where instead of transactionally, we just say ‘we want to sell this.’ We start to say, ‘supplier, what do you do best? How does it align with what we do best?'” she explained. “Even in planning, we’ve dug in deeper to be able to come together with key strategic partners and really align not just what we want to deliver this year, but how we will deliver it. How we will match up great capabilities with the research we’ve done on flavors, the research we know around trends that our guest is looking for, and we pair that together and really deliver a solid plan.”

The ninth-annual Convenience Foodservice Exchange event, held May 2-3, was an exclusive networking and experience-focused conference that gave attendees actionable knowledge and research to strengthen their foodservice business. 

Sponsors of the 2024 Convenience Foodservice Exchange included gold sponsors Ferrero Foodservice, Hunt Brothers Pizza LLC, The J.M. Smucker Co., Krispy Krunchy Chicken, LSI Industries, Southern Visions LLP, Stuffed Foods and Sugar Foods Corp.; silver sponsors Steritech and Supplyit By Jera Concepts; and Innovation Zone sponsors Bite Inc., Shiftsmart and Upshop. 

Source: CStore Decisions